15 Years Ago: Gorillaz Unleash Their Animated Debut
When Gorillaz rampaged onto the scene in 2001, it was perfect timing. The '70s animated band Josie and the Pussycats had just starred in a full-length live-action feature, with a soundtrack helmed by some of alternative rock’s best (Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo; Bif Naked; and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, to name a few). The bubblegum flick, with origins in the Archie Comics universe, was the litmus test for Damon Albarn’s rock and hip-hop hybrid.
Gorillaz were undeniably cool. By pairing the Blur mastermind with underground graphic novelist Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl), the project opened up a realm of possibility for both auteurs. Albarn demonstrated his affinity for experimentation throughout Blur’s career, infusing house, trip-hop, Francophile pop, African choruses and more, sometimes within a single song. But even with a delightfully scattershot record like 1994’s Parklife, which ranged from the giddy disco of “Girls & Boys” to the calliope dream “The Debt Collector”, on his resume, Albarn wanted to break free of rock’s shackles.
“Finally, someone let me out of my cage,” rapped Del tha Funky Homosapien on the first Gorillaz single, “Clint Eastwood.” Amid spaghetti western strings and plodding refrains, Del and Albarn made a modern-day “Walk This Way.” It was more cynical than the Run-DMC-Aerosmith collaboration, but it was just as significant in its shifting of cultures. New millennium, new rules: Hip-hop fans, rockers, rave kids and everyone in between could get down to this jam. Plus, the stanza “I’m useless, but not for long / The future is coming on” signaled the activism of the newly emerging Millennial generation.
Gorillaz worked on multiple levels. It may have been mainstream audiences’ introduction to avant-garde bands such as Cibo Matto and Talking Heads, as Miho Hatori and Tina Weymouth appeared on the jovial “19-2000.” Hewlett’s characters and their fantastical backstories brought more devotees to the graphic novel scene. Albarn was given permission to stretch beyond Britpop and realize his grittier tendencies.
Gorillaz challenged the confines of a typical band’s output. It wasn’t just an album; it was an immersive experience, with digitally enhanced goodies bursting from the CD when inserted into a computer. Getting to know the characters -- 2D, Murdoch, Noodles and Russel -- was an added bonus that pioneered the alternative reality movement championed by the likes of Nine Inch Nails. Their existence paved the way for quasi-real groups such as Dethklok and alter egos such as My Chemical Romance’s Killjoys.
Gorillaz was a masquerade for Albarn, a dizzying dance of rap and dub that foreshadowed Skrillex, chill wave and Lorde. It’s commonplace on today’s radio for genres to blur (pun intended), but Gorillaz were one of the first to thread them altogether.
Was that initial album flawless? Far from it. Some of the murkier tracks, such as the old-school scratch of “Sound Check (Gravity)” and the reggae-flavored “Dracula,” dragged on too long. But the roughness of Gorillaz would give way in 2005 to the polished, brilliant Demon Days, which earned a pop collaboration Grammy— as well as a solid footing in the pages of alterna-pop history.
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